We go hiking and backpacking to escape, free from our “real life” responsibilities. But often this freedom doesn’t come for free.
Whether you’re 25 or 52, hitting the trails on the weekend leads to sore bodies. Cue trekking poles. Once considered just for older folks, trekking poles have become increasingly popular among hikers, trekkers, and backpackers of all ages. The advantages of hiking with trekking poles are possibly endless.
Whether you’re just out for a day hike or through-hiking the Appalachian Trail, trekking poles can make the experience more comfortable and safer.
When you’re shopping for trekking poles, there are several questions you’ll need to answer:
One pole or two?
This choice is largely a matter of personal preference. As my rule of thumb, I’ll carry one pole for short hikes or summit pushes for stability, and two poles for long treks and balancing your weight over the miles. Single poles will usually have wider grips and may include the ability to screw off the grip and use the pole as a support for a camera.
Flick or Twist?
There are basically two ways of locking down your adjustable poles once you’ve set the desired length: Flick locks and twist locks.
If you’re going to be using your poles in the winter, flick locks are your ticket. They are easy to adjust with gloves on and the flick lock system works well in sub zero temperatures. The twist lock system is ideal for folks who will be using their poles for summer pursuits exclusively. The rods contract in the extreme cold and will fail faster than the flick locks. Twist locks are easier to adjust on the fly if the tension is off because you can typically take them apart and adjust without tools. The flick lock system usually needs a Philips head screwdriver to tighten things up if the locks are too loose.
Shock absorbing or not?
If you have achy joints or creaky knees, shock-absorbing poles are made for you. They soak up more of the impact on descents so your knees don’t have to. The downsides to this technology include a slight loss of power on the ascent and slightly decreased stability while descending. Some higher-end models have shock absorbers that can be turned on and off. This feature will add weight to your setup, so it might not be ideal for a lightweight backpacker.
These poles are the OG of the trekking pole universe. They are easy to adjust and have been around the longest. With telescoping poles you have two options: two sections or three sections.
Two-section poles are the more durable of the options and are best for folks who are tough on their poles. Think snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and other heavy use applications. The major con of two-piece poles is their packed size and weight. They’ll be the tallest and heaviest option.
Three-section poles are what you’ll see most out on the trail. I’ve packed mine in a suitcase for international trips, strapped them on 18 L packs and 55 L packs. They don’t have the same durability compared to two-part poles but they tend to be lighter. Tougher than the folding poles and with more adjustability, you’ll find mountaineers, casual hikers, and thru hikers alike with this construction.
This newer style features the same kind of design as a tent pole, with a shock cord in the middle of a lightweight shaft. They can fold up even smaller than the three-part telescoping pole and are typically lighter. Folding poles can come as a fixed height or with one flick lock for adjustment. They’re durable enough for most uses but they’re not as durable as their heavier counterparts. I think these are best for trail hikers, thru hikers, and splitboarders. In most cases, they’re not adjustable enough to use as a tent pole to set up a tent or shelter.
Trekking poles are typically made of either aluminum or carbon. Carbon will be lighter and you’ll look cooler! But carbon poles are also more expensive, and more prone to breakage than their aluminum counterparts. Aluminum is the more durable and economic option. I hear you—you’ve already spend $350 on your pack, why spend $200 more on walking twigs? Aluminum is your friend. The downside to aluminum poles is their heavier weight.
Grips are there for your comfort, and come in different constructions cater to everyone’s needs. Materials used in grips are foam, cork, and rubber. Foam is the softest and perhaps the most comfortable. But for a PNW explorer, it may not be the best option because foam grips absorb water; also, foam grips will break down faster.
Cork, on the other hand, is moisture-resistant. It also becomes more comfortable with use because the cork molds to your hand, and is naturally antimicrobial so it resists stinkiness. Downside? It’s a heavier than foam, and poles with cork grips can be more expensive.
In the heavier weight category you will find rubber grips. They’re not as comfortable as your other options but they’re the most water-resistant, making them the choice for winter activities. But every perk has its tradeoff—this same property can make them chafe in hot weather on sweaty hikes.
One thing you might want to look for is poles with extended grips—basically, sections of foam that go 4-5 inches down the shaft from the grip. They can be nice when you are in terrain with many ups and downs—instead of stopping to fiddle with the shaft length, you can just grab the extended grip when you need to ‘choke up’ on the pole.
Most poles have a carbide steel tip. Your major option is whether your pole comes with rubber tips to cover the harder ones or not. The carbide tips can be noisy and skid on hard surfaces. Some also argue they do more to damage trails. Rubber tips are quieter and great on hard surfaces like pavement and slick rock. But they falter on wet surfaces and don’t provide the same secure grip in loose dirt.
Trekking baskets are usually quite small so they don’t get snagged in the undergrowth. Many poles give you the option to be of swapping out the baskets for powder baskets to use in the snow, making them four-season equipment.
Figuring out pole height is a mix of science and personal preference. For your typical trail with gradual elevation ascents and descents, your poles should be adjusted so your arm has a 90 degree bend standing regularly. For steep ascents, shorten your poles to work as your front goat legs. On the descent, lengthen your poles so your arms are extended farther than 90 degrees while standing normally. This will be more comfortable and absorb the downhill impact for you better. When you’re traversing a mountainside, poles are your friends for keeping you upright and stable, since you can adjust the downhill pole to be longer than the uphill pole.
I’ve used trekking poles in hikes and treks all over the world, and can answer any questions you might have about them. Hit me up if you need more info!